Lalit Mohan finds Istanbul a land of unmatched wonders, with attractions ranging from the Blue Mosque and the Topkapı Dagger to Prophet Mohammed’s footprint.
There are no disembarkation forms to be filled at Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport, so getting through immigration is a breeze. But it is different at baggage collection, where the trolley doesn’t move unless proffered a Turkish lira coin and then, too, reveals a mind of its own. It takes a brief struggle to break it in, but that done one is soon out to explore an exciting, vibrant city with a geographical and historical span that is unmatched anywhere.
Istanbul is divided between two continents, and therefore two cultures. In ancient times it was known as Byzantium, then became Constantinople of the Romans, and finally Istanbul of the Ottoman and modern Turkish times. “If the Earth was a single state,” Napoleon once said, “Istanbul would be its capital.”
The ethos of the city is best captured by the Hagia Sofia, which first took form as an Orthodox patriarchal basilica in 360 AD. In the 6 century, Emperor Justinian built a cathedral so magnificent at the same spot that on completion he is said to have cried out, “Solomon I have outdone thee.” In 1453, Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmet II, who had the building converted into a mosque, adding minarets and other features. In 1931 it was “secularised” and reopened as a museum in 1935.
The massive 55-metre-high dome of the Hagia is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture. It remained the world’s largest cathedral for nearly a thousand years thereafter. The mosaics on its walls are exquisite, but have suffered the ravages of time. Even the exterior walls have been buttressed with new masonry from time to time. But it still makes to the short list of the world’s seven wonders.
Hagia Sofia and the other two monuments that form the triad of Istanbul’s foremost attractions all lie within walking distance of each other and if one has lodgings in the Sultanahmet area, there is no need to take bus tours. Most conducted trips, including cruises on the Bosphorus strait that divides the city into its Asian and European sections, depart at 8.30 am or 1.30 pm (the exception being the night cruise on the strait). If one is on a bed and breakfast deal at the hotel, it is good to get a nice tuck-in before venturing out. So, a walk around in the morning with a guidebook in hand is a good option. The afternoon can be used for the boat trip or any tour to distant destinations.
One can stroll over from the Hagia Sofia to the Blue Mosque, so named because of the blue Iznik tiles within. Its cascade of domes, and minarets even taller, are features of several Turkish mosques. Sultan Ahmet is supposed to have got design ideas from the Hagia Sofia. It was built in the early 17 century and such was its reputation that masons who worked on it were later brought to India by Shah Jehan to build the Taj Mahal.
The mosque is still in use. A notice outside suggests that female visitors cover their heads and everyone their legs and shoulders while inside. My wife did not have a head cover and asked if she could still go in. “If you feel it is proper,” was a very polite response. But they definitely draw the line at legs and shoulders and give you cloth to drape yourself.
Next in line from the Mosque and the Sofia, is the Topkapi Palace. This opulent palace was built around 1465 by Sultan Mehmet II and remained the residence of the Ottomans until 1856 when they moved to the still more extravagant Domlabahce. Its legends and stories have regaled listeners for ages and even formed the subject of several films. Our guidebook lists among its one-time inhabitants “Salim the sot (who drowned in his bath in a drunken state), Ibrahim the crazy, Roxelana the beautiful and malevolent (a concubine turned queen).” At its peak, the palace was home to as many as 4,000 people.
After Turkey was done with the Ottos in 1921, the palace was converted into a museum of the imperial era. Within its compound lies a large collection of porcelain, robes, weapons, shields, armour, murals, as well as a display of Ottoman treasures and jewellery. The exhibits include memorabilia from Islam’s early history and articles connected with the life of Prophet Mohammed, such as his saucepan, a footprint, several vials containing hairs from his beard, and a box for his tooth; the turban of Prophet Joseph; an original tablet with the story and the sword of David, old locks of the Holy Kabaa, and so on.
Of special interest, and requiring a separate ticket for entrance is the Harem within Topkapi. It was home to the sultan’s mother, the Valide Sultan; the concubines and wives of the sultan; and the rest of his family, including children and their servants. It consists of a series of buildings and structures, connected through hallways and courtyards, including the Circumcision room where the young princes were divested of a part of their manhood under the eager gaze of family and friends.
The Imperial Treasury houses a vast collection of works of art, jewellery, heirlooms and treasures of the Ottoman dynasty including gilded and gem encrusted armour and weapons of several sultans. Also on display is the Topkapı Dagger with a gold and emerald hilt and a sheath covered with diamonds. Sultan Mahmud I had this dagger made for Nadir Shah of Persia, but the intended recipient was assassinated before it could be dispatched, so Mahmud decided to keep it.
On one side of the Blue Mosque lies the ancient 1500-ft-long Greek Hippodrome where they raced horses, the ancient Egyptian obelisk being the turning point of each lap. On what would have been the divider on the track are found structures such as the 2500-old Serpent Column, brought here from Delphi. At one corner of this field, below the surface lies the ancient Basilica Cistern, 65 metres by 143, with the ceiling supported by 336 columns. This is a subterranean water body which was discovered by the Ottomans a 100 years after they started ruling because people living above it were found to be drawing water, and even fishes, by lowering buckets through holes in their basements.
Istanbul had great street food and one of the advantages of a do-it-yourself walking tour is that one can eat as one goes along. The doner kabab, much like the Arab shawarma but made of thinner bread, is more than a meal by itself. You can also get roasted chestnuts even as you see them hanging on the trees above, and delicious corn bhuttas sprayed with lime juice instead of being rubbed by dirty lemon halves. To quench one’s thirst, excellent pomegranate or citrus juice is squeezed out instantly.
Not too far from these sites is the 500-year-old covered Grand Bazaar with its maze of 58 streets. Jewellery, leather, pottery and other merchandise are sold here and the market is a haggler’s delight.
The 90-minute boat cruise on the Bosphorus is the only “conducted” trip we took and saw the city from a different perspective. Legends place Noah’s flood here and also have Jason passing through on the Argo in his quest for the Golden Fleece.
Also included in the boat trip was a visit to the Spice Bazaar where sweets, including one labeled as “Turkish Viagra” and condiments were being sold. This is another covered market, though not as large as the Grand Bazaar.
Istanbul offers a lot more, but we had only two days. However, travellers should note that Hagia Sofia is shut on Mondays and Topkapi Palace on Tuesdays.
Avoid the Blue Mosque on Fridays, since it is in use most of the time on that day.